Today is my last day in San Diego, and I am sick. Too sick to go to the border. In our training we learned that many of our friends waiting to cross the border have compromised immune systems, and that our germs could significant harm them. So I’m stuck here in San Diego, but perhaps it’s a good opportunity to process what I’ve seen and experienced these past few days.
Yesterday started off slow. In the morning we accompanied several of our friends as they prepared to present themselves at the border. Among them was the second half of a family that had been separated a few days before. They were visibly anxious, perhaps wondering when, how, or if they would be reunited with their father and brother. I wondered too. For families that are separated as they cross, what kinds of efforts are made to reunite them in detention? Is any effort made?
After the morning group was whisked off to the border by Grupos Beta (more on them later), there was an abrupt announcement that no more numbers would be called that day (more on that later as well). That meant that all the people waiting in the plaza all of a sudden had nowhere to go and nothing to do. We invited as many of our friends as we could back to our office down the street, where we served free coffee, coke, and tamales to anyone who walked through the door.
At that point my role shifted to office chaplain. I wandered around the office responding to requests for prayer. There was a large group of friends from English speaking countries and I prayed with many of them. One gentleman in particular was worried about his family that he had left behind. He hadn’t heard from them and didn’t know if they were even still alive. I managed to muddle through a prayer with him, knowing that the prayer was appreciated, but still wishing I could do more.
Later in the day I helped people practice for their ICE interviews. I got to pretend to be an ICE agent, but I don’t think I was intimidating enough because at the end of the practice interview the interviewee told me that it felt “pretty normal.” If there’s one thing that’s not normal in all of this, it’s our treatment of migrants and refugees seeking safety and freedom. In my role as an ICE agent, I asked the interviewee why they wanted to come to America—why not some other country? They said that it was because America was a country that valued freedom and human rights for all people. I tried not to react to the irony of such a statement from someone in such a position. Because the truth is, we are not respecting the human rights of these travelers. Currently, we are breaking international asylum laws and we are breaking the laws of the United States. Which brings me back to Grupos Beta and the “number system.”
What’s happening at the border right now is confusing, and I can’t claim to understand it all, but one thing that is clear is that the United States is currently making it very hard for anyone to actually cross the border to make their asylum claim. This, in itself, is a violation of US and international law (see the UN Refugee Convention of 1951). According to the law, anyone wishing to claim asylum should be able to walk across the border and present themselves—it’s as simple as that. But that’s not what’s happening right now.
Right now, the only people being allowed to cross are people who have had their numbers called. The number system is murky and confusing. It’s not entirely clear who is in charge of it. The Mexican government claims to have nothing to do with it. The American government claims the same. The only entity that seems to know what’s going on is a quasi-governmental organization from Mexico called Grupos Beto. They appear to be the organizers of the list, but how they are coordinating with Mexican and American officials is unclear, since technically the list itself is illegal. Essentially what happens is this: when migrants get to the border, they must somehow find their way to a plaza in downtown Tijuana where numbers are given out and people’s names are put on a list. Each day, a certain amount of numbers are called, and those individuals are allowed to cross. Everyone else must go back to their various shelters and try again the next day. Many of the migrants have been waiting to hear their number called for over a month. During that time they stay in shelters that sometimes have no clean water, no electricity, and sometimes, no bathroom. Even the worse of the shelters are often at capacity. Make no mistake, this is the crisis at our border. It’s not a national security crisis. It’s a moral one and a humanitarian one.
So many people who talk about the need for more border security have concerns about illegal immigration. They are angry that people crossing the border are breaking the law. My question in response to those concerns is, what about the laws that we, as a nation, are currently breaking in order to keep these people out? You can’t pick and choose which laws to follow. If we are a nation of laws, then we must follow all of them, including the ones which say that any person has an absolute right to flee persecution in their own country, and that any person has an absolute right to cross our border and make their claim for asylum. They may not win that case, but they have the right to make it. These are people who have suffered terrible abuses. I know because I talked with them and heard their stories. We need to let them in and give them a chance to make their case. And we need to do so in a much more compassionate and humane way. May it be so.